Women’s rights under threat: law has become a source of women’s vulnerability instead of protection

Article Date

06 March 2014

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

About two weeks ago, February 20th  2014 to be exact, the National Geographic  Daily News featured an article by Eve Conant titled “Rollback of Women’s Rights: Not Just in Afghanistan. Polygamy, stoning of adulterers, virginity testing, and laws that protect batterers are on the rise in increasingly conservative nations.”In the article the author asks John Hendra, assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director of UN Women for his thoughts about the global status of women. In his responses he cites with country-specific examples on where achievements have been registered as well as areas of serious concern.

Although he didn’t touch upon recent developments in Uganda, he could have and perhaps should have. Nonetheless, I found the theme of that article very relevant to  our own rollbacks of women’s and human rights and  the implications for progress towards gender equality for which the country has been hailed for some time.

The Parliament of Uganda passed and the President assented to the Anti-Pornography Act and the Anti-homosexuality Act (AHA) invoking wide local and international debate of these laws. Unfortunately the laws have also invoked immediate unlawful acts which shed light on the latent danger embedded in laws of this nature. A recent media report indicated that thepublic is already helping police to enforce the law by having10 people undressed in public in Iganga, eight of them women. Another paper went ahead to provide a list of the top 200 homosexuals in Uganda.

Both laws deserve to be condemned in the strongest terms on grounds that they promote polarization and the violation of fundamental human rights. The anti-pornography law represents a roll back of the gains in women’s rights that we have achieved to date. By banning women from exposing their breasts, buttocks and thighs, and from “dressing indecently in a manner to sexually excite”, the law implicitly imposes a dress code the limits of which are infinite because they are determined by the beholder. This is inherently discriminatory and amounts to an attack on women’s personal autonomy and expression. It is therefore inconsistent with the constitutional guarantees and universally recognized human rights standards to which women of Uganda are entitled.

Uganda is state party to various international instruments that promote gender equality and women’s empowerment including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol). The ratification of international instruments on gender equality combined with a gender responsive Constitution has proved a critical foundation upon which efforts for critical gender responsive laws and policies have been demanded and in some cases successfully secured. Critical constitutional provisions that warrant mention here include:

  • All laws and customs that are inconsistent with the Constitution are void to the extent of the inconsistency (Art.2.2)
  • Women can confer citizenship to their children (Chapter 3)
  • Equality and freedom from discrimination (Art.21)

The gains made for women’s rights have spanned the three most recent terms of Uganda’s Parliament. Starting with the 6th Parliament (1996-2001) the constitutional provisions on affirmative action were translated into laws to provide for women’s quotas in parliament and local government level. Although this began as a largely symbolic gesture, today we can boast that we have the first-ever female Speaker of Parliament.

Under the 7th Parliament (2001-2006), women’s rights activists managed to secure some gains under the Land (Amendment) Act 2004 to protect women’s interests in matrimonial homes as well as the rights of family members in the application for a certificate of occupancy on land under customary tenure. Other achievements included the Employment Act (2007) in which maternity leave days were increased, paternity leave was introduced and provisions on sexual harassment at the work place included.

The 8th Parliament (2006-2011), proved to be the most fruitful in invoking the constitution to secure laws that are conducive with gender equality.  The joint efforts between UWOPA and women’s organisations paid off with the enactment of: the Employment Act 2006, Penal Code Amendment) Act 2007 ; the Equal Opportunities Commission Act 2007; the Domestic Violence Act 2010; the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2010; and the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act 2010. It is also noteworthy that these laws were passed in the same year that Uganda ratified the Maputo Protocol which explicitly addresses the issues of sexual and gender based violence, and harmful traditional practices.

The passing of and assent to the Anti-pornography Act, clearly set the stage for a roll back of women’s personhood and autonomy as upheld by our constitutional guarantees on equality before and under the law, including laws that protect women from sexual and gender based violence, intimate partner violence, and female genital mutilation to mention a few. Moreover strong resistance persists over issues that are pertinent to women’s personhood, security and autonomy. This is borne out by the fact after several years of advocacy at all levels of society, the law on Marriage and Divorce and the principle of co-ownership of land remain outstanding. This points to a need to address social norms and attitudes that dictate against gender justice. On the contrary, the Anti-pornography Act endorses the violation of women’s rights under the pretext of culture and morality. Within this context the enthusiasm on the part of the public to enforce this new law isnot surprising.

The government’s condemnation of the reported unlawful acts by the public based on this law is insufficient. The Anti-pornography Act does not proffer justice and therefore needs to be reversed and in its place passed laws to protect women from sexual harassment in the public sphere and in education institutions. It is the responsibility of the Government of Uganda to use the meager resources at its disposal to guarantee women’s personal security and to protect us from violations of our dignity, privacy and autonomy.